Before delving into how to beat him, let's break the hero down.
Play StyleTypically you'll see Phantom Lancer in a 4-Protecting-1 type of strategy. By this I mean his four allies create turmoil to distract the enemy while Phantom Lancer farms up and pushes towers. To some extent, you can consider Phantom Lancer a split-push carry as well.
Ganking him is also very difficult. You must have some form of detection and you must also be able to solo out the real hero. Often, Phantom Lancer may be pushing lanes with his Illusions alone, or jungling two spots at once, making it hard to tell where the real Phantom Lancer is.
WeaknessesEarly game, Phantom Lancer is very susceptible to any form of detection. On his own, Phantom Lancer cannot do much damage (low mana pool, despite high damage nuke/slow). He is also very squishy, though he has an escape mechanism in Dopplewalk.
Therefore, in early game, we can say his weaknesses are:
- Detection (Dust, Gem, and Sentries to some extent)
- Burst Damage
- Mana Burn (low mana pool with high mana cost abilities)
Therefore, mid game, we can say his weaknesses are:
- Detection - you just need to be smarter with it. Force him to Dopplewalk before using Dust so he cannot Purge it and use Dopplewalk to escape. If you have Sentries or a Gem, this is less of a problem.
- Anti-Split-Push - he will be farming the jungle, lane, and pushing towers on his own. Using heroes that can take out split pushers become valuable here. TPs are a must. Do not give up towers.
Therefore, in late game, we can say his weaknesses are:
- Cleave Heroes - auto attacks that hit an area
- AoE Spells - less effective for the damage, but still might help hurt the Illusion count
- Protection from Physical Damage - via spells, Ghost Scepter, Evasion, etc.
- Crowd Control / Disarm / Attack Slow - prevent him from spawning Illusions
Countering Phantom LancerThere are many routes to countering a hero like Phantom Lancer. You might be able to make some of these decisions before play (e.g. Captains Mode), but in pubs you might not have that advantage.
StrategyAs we've talked about, Phantom Lancer needs his farm and needs the game to go on for a while. He can get aggressive early with support from Keeper of the Light, but that doesn't necessarily seal the game as a loss.
The main strategy would be: do not give him time to farm.
- Push Early - force him to come help his team defend, he does not pose much of a threat in early game. Take advantage of that.
- Occupy his Jungle - ward his jungle up, do not let him find farm anywhere
- Gank him when you can - use the wards to see when he's farming alone and use Smoke of Deceit to sneak over and gank him. Make it so he's not safe farming anywhere.
HeroesSome heroes help to play against Phantom Lancer. They fall into four general categories: AoE Spells, Cleave Damage, Anti-Split Push, and Smart Play.
- AoE Spells
- Leshrac - as long as you don't get focused down, your ult can help clear out Illusions
- Earthshaker - a classic counter due to his Ultimate triggering off of Illusions as well
- Darkseer - a generally good hero in any case, but also good for grouping up the enemy team + Illusions. Not 100% sure, but his Ult clone of Phantom Lancer might spawn Illusions on hit as well.
- Magnus - another hero capable of grouping heroes up. The long stun duration on his ult helps to quickly focus down Phantom Lancer.
- Cleave Damage
- Sven - paired with a hero like Magnus, Sven's Ult + Cleave can rip through Phantom Lancer. He also has an AoE stun and an AoE armor buff for the team.
- Luna - her Glaives, paired with naturally high DPS make her easily able to cut through Phantom Lancer. She does not have high mana dependency, so the Mana Burn on Diffusal Blade is not as large of a threat to her. She is squishy, so making sure Phantom Lancer does not focus her is a must.
- Gyrocopter - Flak Cannon is an amazing ranged cleave. It only lasts for 6 attacks, but splashes in a 1000 AoE. Paired with Farm and his AoE Ultimate, Gyrocopter can make quick work of Phantom Lancer.
- Tiny - after getting Aghanim's Scepter, the cleave is huge against Phantom Lancer. Early game, Tiny is also very good at comboing Phantom Lancer for a near instant kill.
- Kunkka - Not necessarily as effective as other cleave heroes, but Tidebringer + Crits has the potential to wipe out Illusions quickly.
- Dragon Knight - in his ult form, he has splash damage and his 3rd level ult also slows enemies. If you can get the Phantom Lancers grouped up, Dragon Knight can put a dent in them.
- Anti-Split Push
- Nyx Assassin - high tier solo killer right now. Mana Burn, plus the damage from your ult and stun can easily kill a solo farming Phantom Lancer, as long as you know which one is real.
- Bounty Hunter - not as good at solo kills anymore, but still potent. Nevertheless, track is still useful against Phantom Lancer.
- Wisp - paired with a good hero, Wisp can quickly gank Phantom Lancer (provided good wards), then return to help the team with whatever they were doing. Basically, an excellent hero for playing against 4-protecting-1 teams.
- Smart Play
- Shadow Demon - by using Disruption on Phantom Lancer, Shadow Demon is capable of spawning his own Phantom Lancer army.
- Faceless Void - if you can capture the original Phantom Lancer in your Chronosphere, he'll be done for quickly.
- Spectre - by tanking up, Spectre can kill Illusions (and the enemy team) with just Dispersion damage
- Omniknight - not necessarily a counter, but his Ultimate (Guardian Angel) can help keep your team alive long enough to kill Phantom Lancer. Degen Aura also helps by slowing Phantom Lancer's movement and attacks.
- [Untested] Naga Siren - I have not tested this, but my theory is that if you use the Naga Ult, then by the end of it the Illusions will have disappeared and you can lock Phantom Lancer down with Net.
- Axe - early game to mid game, you'll generally have the advantage. Using Call, you can keep Phantom Lancer pinned down while his Illusions cause your to Spin more. However, after the armor buff from Call wears off, Phantom Lancer has the potential to melt you.
- Tinker - March of the Machines is a great spell for dealing with Phantom Lancer. Laser also reduces his ability to land hits (i.e. less chance to spawn Illusions). However, if he gets the jump on you first, Diffusal Blade will melt your mana pool and you will not win the fight.
- Medusa - Mystic Snake, Stone Gaze, and Split Shot are all great against Phantom Lancer. Mystic Snake does a ton of damage to Illusions (1500, if I recall), and Stone Gaze slows Phantom Lancer so he has a harder time attacking and spawning more Illusions. The problem is that if he jumps you first, Diffusal Blade will destroy your Mana Shield.
ItemsSome items can be good for playing against Phantom Lancer. None are really "hard counters", but every little thing helps.
- Shiva's Guard - AoE damage plus a passive AoE attack/movespeed slow. The armor will help you live longer, but you'll also have additional mana which can be burned by Diffusal Blade.
- Halberd - Evasion is excellent against Phantom Lancer. The active ability to Disarm is also great if you can get it on him before he starts spawning Illusions.
- Butterfly - on the same note as Halberd, it provides evasion which is incredibly helpful in surviving against Phantom Lancer.
- Battlefury / Mjollnir - both are types of cleave. Any kind of cleave will help to clear out Illusions
- Detection - Sentries, Dust, Gems, etc.
- Ganking Items - Observer Wards, Smoke of Deceit, and TPs
- Force Staff - able to get allies out of the mass of Phantom Lancers
- Ghost Scepter - immunity to Physical damage can help survive as well